For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 14, 2005
President Addresses American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention
J.W. Marriott Hotel Washington, D.C. [Excerpts on FOIA, openness]
Q: Mr. President, Tim Franklin from the Baltimore Sun. I know you'd be disappointed if you didn't get an FOI question --
THE PRESIDENT: I thought you were going to ask about the, like the Oriole-National thing, you know. (Laughter.) The broadcast agreement or -- (laughter.)
Q: In processing FOI requests, should government officials presume that information should be given to citizens? Or should the burden fall on citizens to convince government to give them access to information?
THE PRESIDENT: That's an interesting way to put the question. Look, the presumption ought to be that citizens ought to know as much as possible about the government decision-making. Rich and I talked about this backstage a little bit, of course. He's constantly lobbying me. (Laughter.)
I know there is a tension now between making the decision of that which is -- that which can be exposed without jeopardizing the war on terror -- and I understand there's a suspicion that we -- we're too security-conscience [sic]. Let me refer you to the WMD report that -- the Silberman-Robb Commission -- as an example, however, of how I hope that we're becoming balanced between that which the public ought to know and that which, if we were to expose, would jeopardize our capacity to do our job, which is to defend America.
Ninety percent of the report was declassified. I think that might have surprised the press corps. I don't know, I don't want to speak for you all. But I think people following this issue were surprised that so much was declassified. And, yet, the Silberman-Robb Commission made it really clear that had the other 10 percent been declassified, it would have created -- it would have jeopardized our capacity to protect the country. It would have exposed sources and uses.
Rich talked about, you know, I didn't realize we spent that much money on protecting it, but we also spend a lot of money on analyzing FOIA, because somebody told me there's 3.5 million FOIA requests a year, which is a lot. I can't tell you the percentage which passed, or not passed, but there is -- there's an active interest in people reading documents. And I would hope that those who expose documents are wise about the difference between that which truly would jeopardize national security and that which should be read.
Look, John Cornyn is a good friend, and we look forward to analyzing and working with legislation that will make -- it would hope -- put a free press's mind at ease that you're not being denied information you shouldn't [sic] see. I will tell you, though, I am worried about things getting in the press that put people's lives at risk. And I know you -- I'm sure you feel the same way, and everybody in the room would feel that same way.
And it's that judgment about what would put somebody's life at risk, and what doesn't, is where there's tension. And to answer your question, I believe in open government. I've always believed in open government. Rich is right. You know, I don't email, however. And there's a reason. I don't want you reading my personal stuff. There has got to be a certain sense of privacy. You know, you're entitled to how I make decisions. And you're entitled to ask questions, which I answer. I don't think you're entitled to be able to read my mail between my daughters and me.
And so I've made -- I've made an easy decision there. I just don't do it. Which is said, really, when you think about it. Everything is investigated in Washington. And that's just the nature of the way here right now. And so we're losing a lot of history, not just with me, but with other Presidents, as well. And so there's a balance to all this. And I hope it's said -- when it's all said and done that we were fair to the press corps and the American people.
I said -- I said it's hard -- in my inaugural address, I did talk about, we've got to be consistent. I talk to Vladimir Putin about a free press. We got to make sure our own press is free. I know that. I talked to the people in Iraq about a free press and transparency and openness, and I'm mindful we can't talk one way and do another. But we're still at war. And that's important for people to realize.
Right after September the 11th, I was fully aware that the farther we got away from September the 11th, the more likely it would be that people would forget the stakes. I wish I could report that all is well. It's not. It's just not. It's going to take a while. What is better is that there's fewer al Qaeda, and we got them off balance, and we're continuing to press. And so long as people can be endangered by leaks, we just got to be real careful.
I don't know if -- I probably talked your -- talked you to death. That's call filibustering. (Laughter.)
Q: Mr. President, kind of a follow-up on the same topic, when you talk about risks of exposing sources of information to an impact on life, do you think that Judith Miller and Matt Cooper are wrong for not disclosing their sources?
THE PRESIDENT: Why don't we let the courts decide that. You think I'm going there? You're crazy. (Laughter.)
Q: Then I have a follow-up --
THE PRESIDENT: Right answer, Herman? If it were Herman, I would say, lock him up. (Laughter.)
I'm not going to talk about that, seriously.
Q: I have a follow-up that might help you, then. Do you have two tickets to tonight's game? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Depends on what you write next time. (Laughter.)
No, look, this is all -- we're all under the microscope on this issue. This is an issue that there is a -- Mr. Fitzgerald is looking into all aspects of this issue, and so it's -- on the advice of counsel, I'm not talking. (Laughter.)
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. President. I, too, have a follow-up question on FOIA. The longest pending FOIA request is over two decades old. My own newspaper has received answers to FOIA requests long after the reporter has left the newspaper. Is there anything your office can or should do to speed up responses to legitimate FOI requests?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I was happy to hear that the request was more than two decades. I thought he was going to say, like, four years and two months old. (Laughter.) I have no idea how to answer your question on this particular request. And I will be glad to get Rich to send it over. I really don't. I'm not dodging. I don't know what the request is. I don't know who you made the request to. I don't know why it's taken 20 years.
Q: It's not that particular request, it is just the whole nature that some FOI requests take years and years to get an answer.
THE PRESIDENT: Was this a request to the White House or was it to --
Q: It was an FBI request. But I'm talking in general terms, is there anything your office can or should do?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that FOIA requests ought to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. But, again, I just don't know the facts on this one. And I would hope that at least the FOIA requests to the White House, our staff deals with them quickly, or as quickly as humanly possible.
Q: Hi, Mr. President. Following up just a bit on the question of classified information, which we discussed. Would you support a requirement that agencies submit an impact statement, sort of like an environmental impact statement, before they make a determination that large categories of information should be kept secret? Given that, the U.S. Information and Security Oversights Office, which monitors classification, has expressed concern about the sharp increase in unwarranted classifications of government information.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I'll look at -- I'll look at the idea. Again, I don't know enough about it. But I think the philosophical answer I gave was that the people deserve to know so long as it doesn't jeopardize their security. Put it in that context. But if there is a -- again, this is -- is a part of the Cornyn law, I presume?
MR. OPPEL: The Cornyn law would put a limit of maximum 20 days on how long an agency has to respond.
THE PRESIDENT: I just need to -- I, frankly, haven't looked at the particulars of the Cornyn idea, be glad to look at it. Thanks. Sorry about that. [...]